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The Lessons of Mr. Polk’s War

by Jeffery Mankoff on May 13, 2006

Jeffery Mankoff

An American president, using politicized intelligence, launches a war on specious pretexts. American forces occupy the enemy capital but cannot impose a political settlement or extricate themselves from an increasingly expensive and unpopular war. Meanwhile, on the home front, partisan and sectional rancor increase. Even though the United States is ultimately victorious, the war exacerbates already deep divisions, laying the foundation for civil war.

This is not some dystopian vision of the future course of the war in Iraq, but the actual history of the 1846-1848 war between Mexico and the United States. The president is not George W. Bush but James K. Polk. But like President Bush, Polk's deception about his reasons for going to war and his facile assumptions about an easy U.S. victory contributed to a massive public disillusion that precipitated a breakdown in American politics in the 1850s. Disillusion with the Iraq war stems from the same causes. While no one is yet predicting civil war, Bush's handling of the war is poisoning politics in this country and undermining American democracy.

Despite its victorious conclusion, the Mexican War was a fiasco that helped set the stage for the Civil War. It started as a "war of choice," when Polk ignored evidence that American forces had crossed into what was legally Mexican territory before being attacked by Mexican troops. As with Bush's claim that the United States invaded Iraq to rid the country of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Polk's obfuscation about the location of the ambushed American troops laid the foundation for charges that the administration had lied to the public and concealed the real reasons for going to war.

Polk sanctioned war to annex California and the Southwest, believing American exceptionalism would make this grab for territory morally different from European imperialism, which he condemned. Bush and his associates similarly bought into the notion of American exceptionalism, arguing that, despite Iraq's long history of foreign occupation, Iraqi civilians would welcome U.S. troops as liberators. Most Iraqis, like most Mexicans in 1846, thought otherwise, and popular resistance soon coalesced against the invaders.

In both Iraq and Mexico, U.S. forces generally defeated the opposing army, but unexpected resistance forced them to occupy large parts of the country and confront a bitter guerrilla insurgency. The insurgency and the failure of U.S. forces to win a rapid victory intensified partisan rancor at home. In the 1840s, the opposition Whigs mostly opposed the war, as did a faction of Polk's Democrats. Today, the war in Iraq has deeply divided American opinion, providing, at last, an issue capable of uniting the fractious Democratic Party behind a demand to get US troops out.

The Mexican War and its legacy of territorial expansion, which upset the delicate balance between slave and free states, played a major role in fomenting the splits between Whig and Democrat and North and South that triggered America's slide into civil war in the 1860s. The war in Iraq is likewise hardening the divide between Republicans and Democrats as well as Red states and Blue states. Supporters of the war accuse their opponents of hating freedom, while critics charge the administration with massacring Iraqis to fill the coffers of Halliburton. Civil war may not be looming just yet in America — in contrast to Iraq — but there can be little doubt that the war has coarsened political rhetoric and injected an element of real hatred into politics on the part of both the Left and the Right.

The real tragedy is that much of this domestic bitterness could have been avoided if Bush had not repeated so many of the mistakes made by Polk in the 1840s. Misuse of intelligence deprived the public of the opportunity to debate the war on its merits. Lack of planning for serious resistance and guerrilla warfare allowed the war to drag on longer, and at higher cost, than its initiators foresaw.

It was Polk's and his successors' inattention to the domesticÊ consequences of war that precipitated the slide into the Civil War, and Bush has proven no better. Healing the bitterness over the war requires an openness and honesty — about the use of intelligence, the aims of the war, and the administration's lack of planning for the consequences — that Polk never demonstrated and that, so far, neither has Bush.

In the last part of his presidency, Bush should recognize the damage his deception and lack of preparation have done to the American political system, and seek to rebuild the consensus about fighting terrorism that existed before the invasion of Iraq. Otherwise, "Mr. Bush's War" may prove nearly as damaging to American democracy as "Mr. Polk's War."


Jeffrey Mankoff is a writer for the History News Service and a doctoral student in history and security studies at Yale. E-mail: jmankoff@yahoo.com.